Friday, December 06, 2013

Supreme Court to hear Wisconsin airline case

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday in a case involving a Wisconsin air carrier that could determine whether airlines should be protected from lawsuits, as the Transportation Security Administration is, after mistakenly reporting a security threat.

The case involves Appleton-based Air Wisconsin Airlines, which reported concerns about pilot William Hoeper’s mental state before he boarded a plane as a passenger at Dulles Airport in December 2004.

Hoeper knew he would be terminated after failing a series of flight tests on a simulator near Dulles, and Air Wisconsin officials worried that he might be a security threat, according to the airline’s written legal argument.

Hours before the flight, Hoeper “blew up” at instructors after failing his fourth test, yelling and cursing at them, according to the airline. In addition, Hoeper was trained to carry a firearm in the cockpit, although Air Wisconsin officials didn't know if he had a gun with him for the test.

The Colorado Supreme Court denied Air Wisconsin immunity from a defamation lawsuit in the case by finding the airline “overstated” its concerns. Hoeper, who lived in Denver, won $1.4 million in a jury trial.

The Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the law that created TSA and gave it immunity from such lawsuits also granted airlines the same protection.

The immunity granted to TSA was similar to libel protections for newspapers, saying the agency should be protected unless statements are made “with actual knowledge that the disclosure was false, inaccurate or misleading” or “with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of that disclosure.”

The federal government filed a brief in the case arguing that reporters of potential security threats should be immune because they are critical to maintaining air safety.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., a former head of the transportation committee, argued in another brief that over-reporting of security threats is better than under-reporting.

If Air Wisconsin isn’t granted immunity, the case “would have a chilling effect on the airplane industry’s willingness and timeliness in reporting suspicious activities,” Mica said in a written argument to the court.

A trade group, the International Air Transport Association, with 240 member airlines, also asked the Supreme Court to hear the case by saying the Colorado court was wrong, that it second-guessed Air Wisconsin and conducted a “hair-splitting” analysis of the case.

The purpose of the reporting law, according to the group, is “when in doubt, report.”

But Hoeper responded in a court filing that Air Wisconsin escalated a personal dispute between him and some of the airline’s workers into “a national security emergency.” He complained that the simulator test was conducted unfairly, and then airline officials reported him as mentally unstable and possibly armed.

Hoeper’s flight to Denver as a passenger was surrounded on the ground by emergency vehicles and a snow plow before he was removed by law-enforcement officials and arrested.

But Hoeper, a 20-year commercial pilot, was released after investigators sorted out what happened and he caught another flight later that day, according to his written argument in the case.

Air Wisconsin “had no reason to think that Hoeper was actually armed and lacked any basis for implying to the TSA that Hoeper posed any real threat,” according to his argument.

A decision in the case is expected by June.


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